Thursday, July 24, 2008

Context is our friend

I want to continue talking about interpretive issues that we face when attempting to study the bible. Today, let's look at a passage found in Galatians chapter 6 as an example.

Gal 6:1-5
1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
2 Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.
3 For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.
4 But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.
5 For every man shall bear his own burden. (KJV)

There is so much that could be said about this passage, but since I'm not preaching this text (and this is only a blog...not a novel), let's deal specifically with the phrase in verse one "ye which are spiritual". Immediately, one might ask "who are the spiritual people in the body of Christ?". Using purely subjective methods, we might draw our own conclusions. Perhaps the spiritual are those who are the most demonstrative in times of praise and worship. Could it be those who say "Amen" in response to the eloquence and force of the preacher's words? Or maybe one who is especially gifted in the area of prophecy?

Well, theoretically, all of those could be possible answers, but a better method of evaluation is context. Did Paul make any remarks near or around chapter 6, that might indicate to us who the spiritual truly are? Well, if we back up just a few verses, we find this discourse which might give us a good indicator of who the "spiritual" are. Let's take a look:

Gal 5:22-26
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
24 And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another. (KJV)

So by using the tool of context (a word that simply means "with the text"), we see that Paul addresses who the spiritual truly are. It has little to do with the criteria I listed earlier. Instead, the "spiritual" are those who demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, and those who do so in humility and without an envious attitude. So an objective look at spirituality (at least in this context) shows that character defines who the spiritual are, and thus makes them qualified to participate in the ministry of restoration.

We may not always have a clear contextual argument to help us understand a questionable phrase or passage, but it's always a good practice to see if the answer is close by, before jumping to conclusions or producing subjective interpretations based on faulty premises.

Until next time....

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Interpretive Issues

I thought it might be fun (for me at least) to share a few posts regarding interpretive issues and personal bible study. How do we properly interpret the scriptures? Let's define a few "theological" words before we begin. Don't let these words scare you- they have simple meanings. The first word is hermeneutics ('herman-newticks'); this word simply refers to the principles of interpretation. The second word is exegesis; this is simply the practice of hermeneutics. Eisegesis is the opposite of exegesis and it means to express your own interpretation of a text (i.e. "to read into it" as opposed to exegesis which is to "draw out" from the text). In case you didn't know (wink wink), exegesis is the preferred method of interpretation; allowing the text to speak to us, rather than trying to make it say something we've conceived. The final word today is exposition. I chuckle when I read advertisements for local churches in the newspaper. They will often make the boast "We feature expository preaching at our church!" Obviously this is worn as a badge of honor, and I wonder if the people truly know what expository really means, or if it just sounds cool or profound to them. The word exposition simply means to pass on or to explain a text (pretty complicated stuff eh?)

Ok, now that we've got some of the white-collar stuff out of the way, let's look at a brief example today in closing. Let's take a verse like Psalm 115:17 as an example that presents a simple challenge in interpretation.

Ps 115:17
17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.(KJV)

Well, if we take a wooden, literal approach to this text, then one might come to the exegetical (there's one of those big words again) conclusion that people who die lose their ability to praise God in eternity. Using this method of interpretation, we might imagine Heaven as a kind of public library where the saints do not mutter a word, and perhaps even the angels whisper to keep from making any commotion. Of course, I drew a rather silly conclusion to try and engage and amuse you as a reader of this blog. But on a more serious note- I wonder how many would take a text like this (standing alone without the support of other scriptures) and use it as a support for a doctrine like "soul-sleep" (i.e., the idea that a person who dies goes into a spiritual coma until the day of the Resurrection)? So you see, it's not hard for something which seems rather benign in terms of interpretation to become serious.

Perhaps if this were the only text we had regarding the dead and their activities, the wooden-literal approach to interpreting this text would be favorable. However, we have the benefit of many other Scriptures which describe the activities of the saints (I'll just deal with the saints in this blog for sake of time) in Heaven. The book of Revelation, in particular, describes the activities of those who have been martyred for Jesus, and they are anything but silent! This illustrates the absolute necessity of allowing scripture to interpret scripture. That means that an obscure text which seems to have a strange meaning must always be intrepreted in light of the other scriptures which deal with the same subject. As with most things in life, there may be some exceptions, and some situations where we don't have a multiplicity of other examples to draw inferences from. But as a general rule, this principle will serve you and I well in our personal bible study.

That's all for today...more soon!